Christmas Bass Practice Diary 2020 – We Three Kings – Bass Practice Diary – 22nd December 2020
Happy Christmas 2020! This is the fourth time that I’ve given a Christmas song the “Bass Practice Diary” treatment. You can find them all on my YouTube channel and JohnnyCoxMusic.com. This year I’ve decided to take on a Christmas carol for the first time. I’ve arranged We Three Kings for double bass and 6-string bass guitar.
The inspiration for this came because I was arranging Christmas carols for online church carol services. As most church services this year are taking place exclusively online due to the pandemic. I’ve been preparing performances of carols (mostly on guitar) to be streamed as part of online Christmas services. It was in the process of doing that, that I started to have some fun with We Three Kings. This arrangement is much to dark and uncomfortable sounding to use for a church service. But I was having fun with it, so I arranged it on bass, and here it is.
As I’ve already alluded to, this arrangement started life as a solo guitar arrangement. I originally came up with the chord melody arrangement for the verse part on guitar, while pedalling the open E string underneath. For the bass arrangement, I put the E bass note on my double bass and played the chord melody on my 6-string bass. The bass is actually in an altered tuning for this.
I very rarely play bass in altered tunings. But in this case, I needed to reach a high D to be able to play the entire melody. The highest fret on my first string in standard tuning is C. So, I tuned up a whole tone to reach the D. Having done that, I tuned the G string up to A and the D string up to F. This enabled me to play the chord voicings using similar fingerings to those I’d worked out on the guitar. The solos on the intro and outro are both played in standard tuning.
The middle section of the piece was arranged entirely on bass. If I’m being honest, I’ve never really liked this section of the song. So, I wanted to give it a complete overhaul and change the harmony entirely. I tried a few things, but nothing really grabbed me until I started playing the “James Bond” style chord progression that you hear in this section. I was obviously channeling something that I did last year, because I realised afterwards that I played something very similar at one point in last years Christmas Bass Video.
Let’s Look Forward to 2021 (It has to be better!)
This is, in some ways, a strange treatment of a Christmas Carol. It doesn’t sound like a celebration. But, on the other hand, this is a very strange Christmas. I am stuck at home in lockdown, unable to see my parents or any of my extended family. We’re all sheltering from the virus and trying to protect others. So it feels to me like this arrangement reflects the times we are living in. Hopefully next year will bring a more cheerful Christmas Bass Video.
Dolphin Dance on Three Basses – Bass Practice Diary – 16th July 2019
This week I’ve been studying transcriptions of Herbie Hancock’s classic 1965 recording of Dolphin Dance from the Maiden Voyage album. I’ve always loved it as a piece of music and I think it perfectly captures what Herbie Hancock was about at that time and why he’s a genius. I’ve been attempting to transfer what I’ve studied onto three basses. 6 string fretted and fretless electric basses as well as upright bass.
The harmony is highly complex and jazz musicians have argued for decades over what are the correct chords to play. So, my main interest in analysing the transcriptions was to find out how Herbie Hancock himself voiced the chords, not only for the melody but also behind his own solo.
In spite of the complex jazz harmony, Dolphin Dance is first and foremost, a beautiful tune. And therein lies the genius of the composer. I’d compare it to tunes like Monk’s Round Midnight, Mingus’ Goodbye PorkPie Hat and Coltrane’s Naima. All beautiful melodies that are elevated by unusual and challenging harmonic structures.
Bass Solo Transcription
I’ve transcribed one whole chorus of my bass solo. I’ve written the chord symbols in above the stave for reference. But I would advise you not to take them too seriously. I took the chord symbols from a book, but I wasn’t following them when I played my solo or when I recorded the chords. I was trying to follow the notes that Herbie Hancock actually played, and the chord symbols don’t necessarily represent a completely accurate picture of that.
A Christmas Bass Practice Diary – Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow! – 25th December 2018
Christmas should be a joyful time. It’s a time for families to get together and eat, drink and be merry! However, if, like me, you feel that Christmas generally doesn’t have enough bass in it. Then this Christmas Bass Practice Diary is for you! Another classic Christmas Standard arranged for three basses! It’s exactly what you need to bring a bit more bass into your Christmas Day!
This week I’ve arranged Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow for fretless bass, acoustic bass guitar and double bass. And all that remains is for me to wish you a very Bassy Christmas!
The Christmas Song aka Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – Bass Practice Diary – 18th December 2018
It’s one week to go until Christmas! So let me first wish everyone a bass filled holiday season! What else could I do other than arrange a classic Christmas Standard for three basses. This is The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) played on fretless bass, acoustic bass guitar and double bass.
Nat King Cole and Fretless Bass
The reason I choose this song is because the voice of Nat King Cole always makes me want to play my fretless bass. Every time I hear him sing, I think of fretless bass. There’s something about the register he sings in and the way he phrases that just conjure’s up in my mind the warm rich tone of a fretless bass guitar. So I played the melody on my Warwick Thumb SC six string fretless bass after I’d laid down the chords, with a few natural harmonics on my Warwick Alien Deluxe six string acoustic bass guitar.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire has a 32-bar AABA form like many jazz standards from that era. The song has a jazz ballad feel, which I’ve replicated on all of the A sections. In the B section, I changed the feel, to bring in a bit of variation. I’m using a 4/4 jazz swing feel and the upright bass (double bass) comes in at the B section playing a 4/4 jazz walking bassline. During the B section the two bass guitars also change feel to a swing feel, before all three basses play the final A section with the original straight jazz ballad feel.
For the intro and outro, I’ve used the acoustic bass guitar playing chords using natural harmonics. It’s a technique that I wrote about in my guide to natural harmonics and I think it’s a beautiful sound.
Modal Jazz Improvisation on 3 Basses – Based on Flamenco Sketches – Bass Practice Diary – 20th November 2018
This week I was inspired by the chord changes of Miles Davis’ modal jazz masterpiece Flamenco Sketches. I used the chords as the basis to improvise using three basses, fretless electric, acoustic upright (double bass) and acoustic bass guitar.
This is the second video I’ve made playing jazz with these three basses. If you’d like to find out more about why I’m using them, then check out my previous video called Playing Jazz with Three Different Basses.
Miles Davis and his Compositions
Once again, I’ve featured a composition by the great jazz trumpeter and band leader Miles Davis. My previous video featured a composition called Solar. It wasn’t a conscious decision to feature the same composer twice. However, it does reflect the influence that Miles Davis’ music has had on me and my own jazz education.
The two compositions, Solar and Flamenco Sketches, actually have very little in common. Other than that they’re written by the same composer. Solar is what jazz musicians would refer to as a Bop tune. And Flamenco Sketches is an example of Modal Jazz. They represent very different stages of Miles Davis’ career even though they were only written about five years apart.
Also, in this video, I’m only using the chord progression for Flamenco Sketches as a basis for improvisation. Whereas, I played the melody of Solar as well as an improvised solo, which is more or less consistent with the Bop style.
The album Kind of Blue, is one of the most famous jazz albums of all time. It was released in 1959 and it marked a complete change of direction in modern jazz. It’s debatable whether or not Miles Davis actually came up with the idea of Modal Jazz. Because there are earlier compositions by other composers, that could be described as modal jazz even though the term wasn’t used to describe them at the time. But Kind of Blue undoubtedly established modal jazz as a major movement in modern music, and it marked a sea-change in jazz.
What is Bop?
The concept of modal jazz is actually very simple. In order to understand it, you must first understand Bop, which had been the prevailing style in modern jazz up until the late 1950’s. Modern jazz really started with a style of music called Bebop, and particularly two gentlemen, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Miles Davis began his career as a teenager, playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. So his background was in Bebop and he continued playing a style of Bop called Hard Bop throughout the 1950’s when he lead his own band. The composition Solar first featured on a Miles Davis album in 1954, and it is typical of a Bop style jazz melody.
The style of Bebop was all about complex melodies and fast moving chord progressions. In order to play it you needed both technical skill, to keep up with the pace, and also exceptional understanding of harmony and ability to navigate fast moving chord and key changes. The Hard Bop movement was a bit less high paced and a bit more soulful, but it still relied upon the melodic and harmonic style of it’s predecessor Bebop.
What is Modal Jazz?
Modal jazz, by contrast, doesn’t rely on chord progressions. Where Bop compositions tend to change chords in virtually every bar. Modal compositions tend to stay on just one chord for extended periods. The improvisers role in modal jazz is not to navigate continually shifting harmony as in Bebop. It’s to create melody from modes.
Modes are essentially scales. Each chord implies an accompanying scale which the improviser can use to create a tune. Flamenco Sketches is a classic example of a modal jazz composition, it is essentially just five chords, or five modes. Very simple in theory, but it’s also one of my favourite jazz compositions.
Flamenco Sketches Chords
Flamenco Sketches starts in C major, I would use a C lydian mode to improvise on this first section. Find my video about Lydian Sounds here. The second chord is Ab7sus4. The sus4 chord voicing is intentionally ambiguous, because it doesn’t define the chord as being either major or minor. Therefore there are a number of different ways you can approach it. Miles Davis uses a major triad starting on the fourth Db, which I’ve tried to emulate in my improvisation.
The third chord is a Bb major chord, and again you can use a lydian mode here. This precedes one of my favourite moments in any jazz composition. Which is a change from the Bb major to a D phrygian dominant mode. This has to be one of my favourite chord changes. I remember seeing Ron Carter’s band play this piece in London in about 2003. It was such a beautiful concert. One moment from the concert that I can still remember all these years later was when the band changed to the D chord in Flamenco Sketches. Ron Carter had an extended range on his fourth string so he could reach a low D on his bass. I’ve tuned the fourth string on my upright bass down to a D in the video to emulate this.
It’s the phrygian dominant mode that gives the piece it’s Spanish flavour. You can find my video about the phrygian dominant mode here. The Spanish sound is integral to the composition. For this reason, this section of the song lasts twice as long as the other four modes. The final chord is a Gm7 chord, you can play a dorian mode here.
The original idea for this video came because I was practicing a technique for artificial harmonics which I’ve adapted from the guitar. I’ve never done artificial harmonics like this on bass before. I use a different technique usually. I haven’t done a video about artificial harmonics yet, but I will do one soon. So stay tuned to my Bass Practice Diary if you want to learn this technique.
I was using this technique on a guitar and I started wondering if I could use it to play chords on my acoustic bass guitar. Once I found it worked I immediately had the idea of playing the chord changes for Flamenco Sketches using the technique. I recorded it and added the improvisation on double bass and fretless bass, and that’s the video!
Jazz on Three Basses – Fretless Bass, Double Bass & Acoustic Bass Guitar – Bass Practice Diary – 23rd October 2018
This week I’ve made a very quick video to demonstrate the bass as an instrument. Specifically, it’s potential to play more than just bass lines. So, I’ve played a jazz standard on three different basses. Two of them are fretless, two of them are acoustic, two of them have six strings and only two of them are bass guitars! Read on to find out more!
If you’ve followed my previous posts, you’ve probably realised by now that I don’t feel that bass guitars should be restricted to playing only bass lines. My instrument is the bass guitar. And the irony is not lost on me that in this video, all of the harmony is played on bass guitars except the bass line. Which I’ve played on an upright acoustic bass.
The Bass Line played on Double Bass (Upright Bass)
The reason that I’ve done this is not because I think I’m a good upright bass player. I don’t think that. I don’t have time to practice the upright nearly enough. My upright bass skills will never be better than average at best. The reason is because it’s the traditional role in jazz for the acoustic upright bass to take the bass line. And I know from years of experience, that if you try and play jazz gigs on bass guitar, acoustic bass guitar or even electric upright bass, you will very often be treated as the guy who is standing in because the band couldn’t book an acoustic double bass player.
I started to study upright bass when I was already at music college, and I did it with the aim of getting more jazz gigs. And it worked! For a while I was playing a lot of jazz gigs in London with my upright bass. But I very quickly stopped enjoying it. It’s a very difficult instrument to transport, especially when it’s impossible to park in Central London. The gigs didn’t tend to pay very much and the practice that I was having to put into the upright bass was taking away from time spent with my first instrument, the bass guitar.
So I gave up doing gigs on upright bass and I started telling people who were calling me for jazz gigs that I could do gigs on Electric Upright Bass (much smaller and more portable), but not acoustic. Needless to say, the jazz gigs dried up almost instantly.
I really enjoy playing acoustic upright bass at home, for fun. Although, I get precious little time to do it and I’m very rusty and out of practice. I’ve kept my upright bass all these years to play at home, even thought I almost never do gigs with it anymore. (I sold my electric upright).
Bass Guitars in Jazz
Do I regret my decision to stop taking gigs on acoustic upright bass? Not for a single solitary second. The upright bass is undoubtedly a beautiful instrument, but it isn’t my instrument. I’m a bass guitar player and I got to the point where I really didn’t look forward to doing gigs on upright bass. I found them to be a lot more hassle than they were worth financially.
But all this underlines the point, that as bass guitar players, we shouldn’t be aiming to take on the role of the upright bass in jazz. It’s not what jazz bands are looking for. Jazz bands that are progressive enough to want a bass guitar in the band are clearly looking for something different. Hence, the reason why I’ve played all of the harmony on bass guitars in the video apart from the bass line.
I’ve always believed that what we should strive to play is music, not just bass lines. Bass lines are an important part of music, they’re the foundation of most music. But there’s so much more music that we can also explore. And I don’t see any good reason why I shouldn’t explore all music, just because I choose to play an instrument that has the word bass in it’s name.
With that in mind, I decided to make a very short and quick demo of three basses playing a jazz tune (Solar by Miles Davis). Each bass showing a different facet of what a basses is capable of. As I’ve already described, the double bass (upright bass) is playing the bass line, the roll traditionally reserved for double bass players in jazz music.
The Acoustic Bass Guitar
The acoustic bass guitar is doing what jazz musicians term comping. Comping is basically when you use chord voicings to fill out the harmony. It’s a roll traditionally taken by piano or guitar. I’ve featured my acoustic bass guitar in a couple of recent posts. I’ve talked about how I use it as a harmonic accompanying instrument. So, rather than repeating myself, I’ll just leave these links for you to explore.
In the video the fretless electric bass is taking the rolls of melody and soloist. I suppose you could see this roll as being traditionally taken by vocalists and horn players. But, there’s actually quite a rich history of melodic bass playing in jazz. So it’s actually not that unusual to hear a bass take this role. In jazz usually everyone in the group gets a solo eventually!
Read this post to learn my thoughts about using fretless bass as a melody instrument.